Latin American Drama Themes


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

A brief survey of Latin American drama cannot do justice to the more than five-hundred-year history of such a vast body of work, even if a skeptic might make short shrift of much of the dramatic literature of Latin America. From the Southern Cone to the Latino communities of North America, from the earliest mystery plays used by the Spaniards to convert and assimilate the indigenous peoples to the drawing-room comedies that have plagued serious critics and enthralled huge audiences throughout the past century, from the derivative experimentalism of arcane ensembles to the educational and agitprop methods of hundreds of revolutionary groups—all have made an impressive mark on theatrical performance.

Because of the historical importance of unscripted work (such as pre-Columbian religious rituals, colonial pageants, and “folk” theater) and of unpublished works of which only the gist and impact have been recorded, many recent scholars of Latin American theater study more than just texts that have been preserved as dramatic scripts and take into account a great deal of anthropological and even archaeological evidence to describe this complex and multifaceted history. Despite the undeniable importance of factual compilations, one must recognize the difficulty of summarizing trends and quoting names and examples too selectively, to the exclusion of many, and it is this challenge that is undertaken in this limited essay.

This summary includes only the theater of Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas, to the exclusion of Brazil and of the French- or English-speaking areas of the continent that are now considered part of Latin America. The Hispanic theater of the United States, however, is included, as a part of the historical continuum of the same linguistic and cultural area.

Modern Genres and Themes

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The great majority of theatergoers in Latin America continue to flock to lighter fare, to comedy, to musicals. The tradition of the género chico is uninterrupted: The comedy of social customs, the farce, and the musical comedy or review have always been the mainstay. In the traveling carpa (tents) of Mexico and the southwestern United States and in the sainete criollo (Argentine version of the Spanish sainete, with tangos and social types from Buenos Aires), in the prolific production of the Alhambra Theatre of Havana (where some of Cuba’s best playwrights and musicians exercised their profession), and of other locales around the continent where vaudeville coexisted with good, solid comic drama, and in far more reputable playhouses, such as the San Martín municipal theater of Buenos Aires, literally thousands of scripted plays have entertained millions. Many of the best playwrights still work in that style, while a great many also combine elements of this popular tradition with European conventions à la Georges Feydeau or Noël Coward (adapted to Latin American culture). Even in revolutionary Cuba, the comedia musical has thrived through the pen of such good playwrights as Héctor Quintero and José Brene.

Among authors who have worked on psychological drama or fantasy, certain popular names stand out: Conrado Nalé Roxlo and Carlos Gorostiza of Argentina; Celestino Gorostiza, Xavier Villaurrutia, Salvador Novo, Carlos Solórzano, Elena Garro, Maruxa Vilalta, Luisa Josefina Hernández, and Rafael Solana of Mexico; Isaac Chocrón of Venezuela; and Elena Portocarrero and Julio Ortega of Peru. Many, influenced by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, have sought to create characters of great psychological complexity, while others have created outright fantasies in which the characters play in dreamworlds.